18
Jun
11

On Joanne Diaz’s The Lessons

A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

What immediately turned me on to Joanne Diaz‘s The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011) was when I read the opening poem “Granada” on Verse Daily on June 3. I fell in love with the poem. I tweeted and made a Facebook post that read something like, “This #poem explodes at the end. What a terrific poem” Here it is:

   Granada 

   To be so far from oxtail stew, sardines
   in garlic sauce, blood oranges in pails
   along the avenida, midday heat
   wetting necks and wrists; to be so stuck
   in stone-thick ice and clouds and recall
   the pomegranate we shared, its hardened peel,
   the translucent membrane gently parting
   seed from luscious crimson seed, albedo
   soft beneath bald rind, acid juice
   running down our fingers, knuckles, palms,
   the mild chap of our lips from mist and flesh;
   so far away from that, and still
   the tangy thought of pomegranates
   crowning coats-of-arms and fortress gates
   like beating hearts prepared to detonate
   their countless seeds across Granada,
   ancient town of strangled rivers
   and nameless bones in every desert hill...
   In Spain, said Lorca, the dead are more alive
   than any other place on earth. Imagine, then,
   the excavation of his unmarked grave
   like the quick pull on a grenade's pin,
   and the sound that secrets make
   as they return from that other world
   of teeth and blood and fire.

Joanne Diaz – The LessonsThe poems in The Lessons are juicy. I love the way the poems feel in my mouth. I enjoy all the details in the poems. Who says you can’t write poems with details anymore? Well, you can, and Diaz shows us how.

But there’s more than detail to these poems. There is wonderful leaping and yoking together of different images and events. For instance, the poem “Violin” is a poem about the life of a violin from when it was both “horse and tree” to the sounds it makes and how it “almost pulls itself / apart, longing for what it was”. The poem does this for nine unrhymed couplets. The poem could end after the ninth couplet, and it would be a fine poem, but then there’s the leap the poem makes from the ninth couplet to the tenth. The leap does what good poems often do – it uses the particular to illuminate something in humanity. Here are the last two couplets to show what you I mean:

   [. . . ] A violin almost pulls itself
   apart, longing for what it was, not unlike

   my father as he stood by the open mailbox
   reading my brother's first letter home.

And there’s a whole other story in that last couplet. Where is his son? At war? In the Peace Corps? Working abroad as a doctor in some small underprivileged village somewhere? And then the mind after the poem is done is trying to build more of a story into that last couplet. But the important thing is the violin and father relationship. The yoking of the two. The use of the violin to understand the father. The violin helps us understand what it’s like for the father to get that first letter. And this feeling is communicated well and well before it’s understood.

There’s something else going on in that leap, too. The poem leaps from being lyrical to being narrative. (By narrative I mean a poem that moves through time and that has causality. By lyrical I mean a poem that exists without time or is a vertical moment in time or is a deliberate focus on an item or a thing. W. C. Williams and George Oppen are often lyrical.)

This jump from lyrical to narrative in a poem happens a number of times in The Lessons. For instance, “Love Poem”:

   Love Poem

   I was the warmth that lifted
   from your pilled sheets, the glow
   of Sebastian in the picture book
   of saints, the moon gliding
   through the window beside your bed.

   I was the clock in your kitchen
   waiting to catch you in my gears.
   In the TV, I was the blue tube
   that saw your sadness run as silt
   down a mountain. I was the rush
   in the vein of every oak leaf
   that crowded your window.

   I was the drift of you before your edges
   twisted into a man. The swing
   of your loose pant cuff. The joint
   in the threshold; the rusted cart
   behind the house. You sensed

   a visitor, but how can I say
   that I was the one who curled
   the wallpaper and held the model
   airplane in its place? That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

In this poem, you see all these vertical moments in time – “I was . . .” . In the the last stanza, we get a bit of narrative:

   [. . .] That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

The leaps are my favorite occasions in The Lessons. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered that type of leaping before or at least noticed it before, but this time I did. I really enjoy its effects.

The Lessons is Joanne Diaz’s first book. It won the 2009 Gerald Cable Book Award. As a I said, The Lessons is juicy with details – like a good Spanish Tempranillo. It’s juicy in every lyric, narrative, and lyric-leaping-to-narrative poem. In fact, this would be a good book to use in a creative writing poetry workshop, you know, to show and teach students how to use details and how effective details are in creating emotions and engagement and in stimulating the imagination.

Often during The Lessons I feel like Ms. Griffin in Diaz’s poem “The Griffin.” When Ms. Griffin reads George Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” “she nearly left the prison of her body.” I don’t think I left the prison of my body, but I certainly forgot it existed. And that’s a lesson – good poetry is a momentary stay against confusion, and there are many momentary stays in Joanne Diaz’s first collection of poems, The Lessons.

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NB

I wish to thank Silverfish Review Press for providing such a detailed and narrative filled colophon about the Jenson typeface. I wish more publishers would do this.//


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